The advantage of experience: shaping a career in engineering

Every year, the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Engineering & Information Technology (formerly the Melbourne School of Engineering) invites students and alumni to connect with industry professionals to explore careers in engineering.

Hotly anticipated and over-subscribed, it's not hard to see why the event, billed as the Career Roundtable, is so enduringly popular. The advice and insights gleaned on the day can be invaluable. And for some students, the connections have proven invaluable.

Graduate, Curtis Li is one such example. He's been fortunate enough to call Stephen Ho – a current Roundtable contributor and one of the Faculty's most distinguished alumni – a friend and mentor.

Stephen presenting at Smart Building Conference 2.0
Stephen Ho presents on stage at Smart Building Conference 2.0

Shaping potential with perspective

With a career spanning more than 30 years, Stephen made his mark at some of the world’s largest companies, including John Holland, Leighton and a distinguished 23-year spell at BHP. Now, Stephen dedicates much of his time to helping others – not only through his generous philanthropy work with the University of Melbourne, but by giving back to students in need of perspective. It's a path that has led him to become a mentor at the Career Roundtable event.

As one of the more experienced hosts, Stephen found himself speaking to many students, including Curtis. Interested in engineering and technology, Curtis dreamed of becoming a pilot and had considered studying aviation. In the end, his love of automation and engineering won. Curtis was accepted into Mechatronics at the University of Melbourne.

It wasn't until his final year of study that Curtis first heard of the faculty's Roundtable event. Curtis was instantly attracted to the concept. “I saw the event as a great way to hear from people already working in the industry. What I really wanted was honest and impartial advice so I could get an idea of what to do after graduation. I’d seen so many students finish their final semester and worry about what’s next. I didn’t want to be one of them.”

Professor Andrew Ooi, MC, closing proceedings at the Career Roundtable
Professor Andrew Ooi, MC, closing proceedings at the Career Roundtable

Building a deeper connection

The Roundtable event provided a fast-paced introduction to a number of career options, prompting Curtis to dive deeper and reach out to Stephen on LinkedIn. To his delight, Stephen replied, offering his time to listen and profer advice as needed.

Over numerous catch-ups, Stephen generously shared insights, lessons and wisdom from a long and storied career. Starting as a mechanical rig engineer with BHP in 1991, Stephen worked in engineering and geology before transitioning to business development, HR, marketing and facilities management. His final contribution to BHP was to oversee the construction of BHP’s headquarters in Melbourne, having been personally asked by then-CEO, Marius Kloppers.

Stephen’s vast experience has given him a very unique perspective on how to approach a career. And although Stephen credits his education for opening many doors, he strongly believes today's graduates need to be more flexible when pursuing an engineering career, much like he did.

“Students need to recognise there might not be that many jobs out there that fit their qualifications, so they need to be more flexible, creative even, in the kinds of jobs they look for when they graduate. That’s where advice from someone like me comes in handy, because I’ve been there.”

Curtis Li is now working as an RPA Developer for an engineering firm in Hong Kong

The nudge that launched a career

This advice has not been lost on Curtis. After graduating from the University of Melbourne, and unsure of his next move, Curtis felt he should focus his search for work in Melbourne. However, Stephen encouraged him to extend his gaze and look overseas. According to Stephen, it was just the nudge Curtis needed to see the opportunities available to him in robotics and drawing in Hong Kong.

Curtis’ decision paid off and he’s now working as an RPA Developer for an engineering firm in Hong Kong. Happy and settled, Curtis is grateful to Stephen for his advice.

“Stephen is a great mentor because he's had life experience. He's been so kind to share his experiences with me, including the mistakes he made when younger. Because he’s been there and done that, I really took it on board."

But looking back, some of his fondest memories in speaking with Stephen didn’t relate to work at all.

"The more we spoke, the more it became evident that he wasn’t just a mentor, but a friend. We spoke about life, ideas and ambitions.”

To see him go on and succeed was just the best

For Stephen, Curtis’ success is well-earned. "To see him go on and succeed was just the best. He had to think a little harder, but he made that decision. He’s doing well. I love that. It makes me happy.

Stephen is looking forward to helping more people like Curtis get started in their careers. “That’s one of the things I get the most pleasure from. This is not a job. This is a passion. I want to do this. I want to give something back and help if I can. It’s so competitive out there. Students need real advice from people who have lived and breathed the industry.”

Alumni and students participating in career roundtable
Alumni and students participating in career roundtable

While the Career Roundtable is an invaluable way to do that, Stephen believes the annual event could become even more powerful. “Students can’t get enough of this session. The feedback from them is always so positive and they always wish for them to be longer.”

Curtis is the first to agree. As the recipient of so many pearls of wisdom, Curtis is keen to repay the faith shown in him. And the best way he feels he can achieve that is to emulate Stephen by mentoring future students and perhaps participating in the Roundtable as an industry professional himself.

“I’m really thankful to Stephen for his time, his advice and his friendship. He really helped me to see the very best in myself, even though I was just a graduate. I would love to give back and host an event like this one day. If Stephen has taught me anything, it’s the value in giving back where you can.”

If someone you know is a student or graduate of the University of Melbourne and might benefit from learning more about our mentoring programs or Ask Alumni, pass this article on and tell them to visit mentoring.unimelb.edu.au.

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